Cracked Houses

Shari Wilson's house is falling apart at the seams. And her life isn't so great, either.

You'd never know it to look at her. At 32, Wilson has the wholesome good looks of a sitcom mom. Juggling 3-month-old Teagen in her kitchen in suburban Surprise, she might be starring in a commercial for children's Tylenol. Or Ivory soap.

Her five-year-old house is another story.

Cracks are etched along the walls, creeping from the corners of the windows and the baseboards. Holes have been cut in various spots on the kitchen linoleum. There's also a series of holes in the backyard -- five feet deep.

And, since the Wilsons started pulling up the carpet three years ago and stopped, it now sits, half-on, half-off, as if waiting for hardwood floors to arrive and put it out of its misery.

Worst of all: the crack running the entire length of the house, from the easternmost edge of the living room floor to the westernmost edge of the kitchen.

This is not one of those spidery cracks that surface on aging stucco, or the normal hairlines that show up on patios.

This is a 45-foot gash bisecting the house's foundation, as if an earthquake struck Surprise.

It's because of this gash that Shari Wilson's entire house is starting to crack, and because of the cracks that her lawyer advised her, in no uncertain terms, to hold off on any new flooring.

"I can't do anything," she says. "I absolutely cannot fix anything, because if I do, and they end up ripping it out, I'd have to pay for it. And so I'm just stuck."

Wilson and her husband, Shane, chose this house, on North 158th Lane in Surprise, for its size: 4,100 square feet.

They already had three daughters when they decided to become foster parents. Eventually, they added three more kids to their brood, all with special needs. So four bedrooms were important. So was a big yard.

"We got the biggest house we could afford," Shari Wilson says.

They were living the American dream, as clichéd as that sounds. And, yes, it's an even bigger cliché to report that their dream turned into a nightmare. But it did.

(That's the thing about clichés: There's some truth at the heart of every one.)

What happened is this:

The house that Shari Wilson thought would be perfect for her growing family developed severe structural defects, including a mold problem.

Her builder refused to fix them, she says.

And when she hired a lawyer, the builder just fought harder. Now Wilson's paid out nearly $100,000 in legal and professional fees -- and the house is as screwed up as ever.

All along, Shari Wilson has wanted only two things: to get the home fixed, and to get her lawyers' fees recouped.

She feels like she doesn't have a choice. Who has the money to pay a lawyer $100,000? And if she can't stay in the house, where is she going to go, with seven kids -- baby Teagen having arrived last November -- and the rising cost of Arizona real estate?

Some people in Shari Wilson's situation might get hysterical. For most Americans, a house isn't just shelter: It's the biggest financial investment they'll ever make.

No one takes out a 30-year mortgage, imagining that their house could fall apart in just five years.

And they don't expect to have to refinance that mortgage, twice, to cover lawyer and engineering fees.

Shari Wilson has done this.

Now she's left trying to salvage her investment in a system that's stacked against her. Arizona's government has been heavily influenced by developers, and if the builders have their way, it's sure to get even worse.

But Shari Wilson is not hysterical. You can't be a mother to so many kids unless you accept catastrophe with a certain nonchalance. And so Wilson does.

Still, it's clear that she is sick and tired of this 45-foot-long crack, and sick and tired of contractors coming to her house. And engineers. And lawyers.

January's bill alone was $13,000.

"Who in the world has $13,000 sitting around?" she asks. "After I've already been paying two to five thousand bucks a month!"

But she doesn't really have a choice. If she doesn't pay up, she knows her lawyer could walk, and then she's lost her entire six-figure investment in legal work -- and will still live in a cracked house.

She surveys her kitchen: the places where engineers have cut away the linoleum, the cracks and the holes.

"This has been going on for two years," she says, and her blue eyes flash. "And I've never asked my builder for a dime. I've just asked them to fix the house."

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske